Friday, May 30, 2014

Grassroots push leads to negotiated minimum wage hike in Michigan

The dust has cleared on a brouhaha surrounding a proposed minimum wage hike in Michigan.

The good guys (mostly) won – thanks to grassroots organizing, massive public pressure and some skilled negotiating behind closed doors. It was an incomplete victory, but it was a victory all the same – most low-wage workers in Michigan are getting a 25 percent pay increase over the next four years to $9.25.

The story starts at Raise Michigan, a grassroots organization that put together a petition drive in February to put a proposal before the legislature to amend the minimum wage to raise the wage. If the legislature didn’t pass it, it would go before voters in November.  It’s a similar gambit that anti-choice organizations used to circumvent Gov. Rick Snyder’s veto of legislation that excluded abortion coverage from Michigan’s health insurance exchange last summer.

The idea was to raise the wage for most workers from $7.40 to $10.10 an hour over three years from, 2015 to 2017, and then index future increases to inflation. As importantly, the petition would also raise the minimum of tipped workers from the current unconscionable $2.65 an hour by 85 cents a year until it reached parity with the rest of the work force. 

Of course, the usual suspects in business and the restaurant industry cried bloody murder about how giving low wage workers a raise to non-poverty income levels would wreck the economy.  But the legislature’s Republican majority was in a pickle – if they defeated the measure in the ledge, then it would go on the ballot – where minimum wage increases tend to fare quite well.
In response, Senate majority leader Randy Richardville (the dude who drove me to blog in the first place) reasoned that if the minimum wage law was repealed, then technically an initiative amending the law would be out of order.
Follow me below the fold for how that particular evil gambit actually turned into a productive set of negotiations and a legislative victory.
Richardville proposed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $8.15 an hour (and the tipped wage to $2.93) on Sept. 1, 2014. The bill included no future increases and no indexing to inflation.  Needless to say, few people were happy.  However, even Richardville’s bill was a small step forward – theoretically, he could have raised the wage by 5 cents an hour (or even eliminated the minimum wage). Or he could have paired the increase with a take back in another part of the law – like conservative house member Margaret O’Brien, who wanted the increase to only cover workers who were 21 years old and older (extending the existing ability of employers to pay a lower wage to teenagers). Ballotpedia has links to and descriptions of all of the bills.

However, two things happened. Most importantly, the folks at Raise Michigan raised a stink, and got a lot of media coverage (some detailed by Eclectablog), while they, labor groups and other progressive organizations managed to flood representatives with mail.

That in turn gave Sen. Minority leader Gretchen Whitmer some leverage – something she isn’t used to having much of with a 12-person caucus in a 38-member chamber.  She used it to extract three more wage increases out of Richardville in 2016, 2017, and 2018, as well as some inflation protection.   

With a few more twists and turns in the House, the final bill ended up with increases in the wage from $7.40 to $9.25 by 2017. After that, the wage will increase up to 3.5 percent every year to keep up with inflation, as determined by a five-year running average (as long as unemployment isn’t over 10 percent – which was one condition Republicans demanded).

One major flaw of the bill is that it doesn’t close the gap between the tipped and standard minimum wage, but they make a (very) slight bit of progress (from 35.8 to 38 percent of the standard minimum) and get the same percentage raises from 2015 on.

So what’s progressive activism worth? For a fast-food employee working 25 hours a week in Michigan, it’s worth about $2,300 a year by 2018; for a food server working the same, it’s more than $1,080. For many people, that’s the difference-maker for paying the rent and keeping the lights on. It’s not what I wanted, but considering that Democrats, let alone progressives, control no part of government in Michigan, I’ll take it –for now. 

But in case you needed in more motivation to get out the vote in the fall, imagine how much better the compromise could have been in Democrats had had control of even one chamber of the state legislature or the governor's chair. 

So why not chip in a bit to Democrat Mark Schauer's campaign for governor?

(H/t to Eclectablog for providing detailed coverage and commentary throughout the minimum mage battle).

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